Pefesigge to Pewsey: my month as an exhibition designer

I spent a long time considering what kind of task I wanted to work on for the Researcher Employability Project (REP) required by WRoCAH for my PhD. It had to be unconnected to my research yet useful for my own skill development, but it was also crucial that the outcome of my work would be a valuable contribution for the partner organisation. After some deliberation I decided that I would like to contribute something to the community where I spent most of my childhood, and I arranged to spend August 2016 working within Pewsey Heritage Centre in Wiltshire, England.

Map Pewsey

Map of Pewsey within the county of Wiltshire, England

The village of Pewsey is relatively unknown outside of North Wiltshire, and its sleepy thatched cottages nestled along the two main roads give the appearance of a quiet and peaceful life spent tending to vegetable patches and walking muddy dogs through areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, Pewsey has an involved and bustling local community who seem to be constantly engaged in planning and hosting events for the village to raise money for charity and to keep up the traditional activities of the area.

IMG_20160811_170027

A view over the valley in which the village of Pewsey lies, an area of outstanding natural beauty

A number of this same proactive community secured funding to open Pewsey Heritage Centre, a museum which explores the recent history of the area using items of local significance. Walking through Pewsey you would be forgiven for thinking that the village had frozen in time at some point during the 19th-century. Many of the same family names can be found inhabiting the same streets for hundreds of years, and much of the surrounding farm land is now worked using tractors by the descendants of those who ploughed it with horses. In these ways, the villagers of Pewsey remain intricately linked with the past, both in terms of the history of the local area and their own inheritance.

Pewsey

Some views of the historic Pewsey high street

From an archaeological perspective, Pewsey lies within an area of astonishing heritage, located between Avebury stone circle to the north and the world famous Stonehenge to the south. The medieval town of Devizes is also located just 20 minutes away to the west, in which one can visit the historically established Wiltshire Museum and its extensive collection of stunning prehistoric artefacts from the region. The area of Pewsey has been witness to human activity since as long ago as the Palaeolithic period (around 12,000 years ago) and evidence for life and death in the area date from the Neolithic period (around 6000 years ago). Pewsey has been inhabited ever since, blossoming during the Anglo-Saxon period into a settlement referred to in historical records as Pefesigge. Although the Heritage Centre contains excellent information about more recent history, it had not been possible to include this huge stretch of time in previous museum exhibitions.  It was this gap in the educational information provided by the Heritage Centre that I intended to fill, working over the course of the month to create a display of objects and informative posters dedicated to the ancient history of this area.

Avebury 2

A view of Avebury stone circle and the accompanying ditch and bank

Much of my time was spent researching the evidence for human activity for each time period since the Palaeolithic and designing the posters for the exhibition. I visited a number of the impressive sites in the local area, such as the Iron Age hillfort which looks down on the village from its vantage point on Martinsell Hill to the north of the valley. I also had the fantastic opportunity to visit extremely knowledgeable local farmers who had ploughed the fields surrounding the village for decades, finding archaeological treasures along the way. One such farmer and landowner, Mr Paul Bowerman, was responsible for the discovery of the extensive Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Blacknall Field during the 1960s, and the ensuing excavation uncovered the remains of over 100 inhumations.

Iron Age hillfort

A view of Martinsell Hill, location of an Iron Age hillfort, overlooking the village of Pewsey

Horse bridle 2

A carved bone, possibly used as part of a horse’s cheek piece, retained in the collection of a local farmer

Once the posters were well under way and I had a clear idea of the types of artefacts discovered in the area, I contacted Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and they kindly offered to lend Pewsey Heritage Centre some of the objects from their collection for use in my display. These consisted of Iron Age pottery with fingertip impression decoration which had been found on Martinsell Hill, Romano-British pottery (including a sherd of Samian ware) from the local area, and a Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead and grand polished flint axe which had both been found within Pewsey village.

During my time working on this project I was living in Pewsey, and to counter the many hours of sitting at a desk doing my research I began to go running around the fields and lanes of the village. It was during one such run that, as I stopped to catch my breath, I looked down at my feet to find that I was standing on a prehistoric flint scraper!  This coincidental find was also included in the display, along with a second, smaller Neolithic flint axe head donated by a local villager.

display 2

The display objects showing from left to right; Iron Age pottery, Neolithic polished flint axe, Prehistoric flint scraper, Neolithic arrowhead, and Roman pottery

The axe heads were placed loosely into roughly hewn “handles” to demonstrate to visitors how they may have functioned, while the pottery was raised to create different levels within the display and so that the fingerprints on the Iron Age fragments were clearly visible. The poster displayed at the back of the cabinet included information on the earliest time periods, as well as a map of many of the archaeological find sites around Pewsey. Above the display case, two further large posters covered the periods from the Iron Age onwards, ending with a short overview of the 19th-century in order that the exhibition linked back into the theme of the other museum displays.

display finished

The finished product!

I greatly enjoyed the challenge of creating an educational display in a month, and feel proud of my achievements, particularly in my success at borrowing objects from Wiltshire Museum which I think really added interesting elements to the display. I’ve worked in the field and in the lab during my time as an archaeologist, but I had never had the chance to work within a museum environment, so I feel that I gained a great deal of experience through this opportunity. I believe that my work is a valuable addition to the information available in Pewsey Heritage Centre, a belief backed up by several comments in the visitors book which noted how people enjoyed viewing the objects and learning from the “prehistoric display”.

Overall, this was a hugely valuable experience and I’m very grateful to WRoCAH for having the foresight to include the REP as a key aspect of the PhD process.

 

Holly

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